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The Sun goes out on a limn with unusual headline

A four-letter word in a front-page headline Tuesday morning had some Baltimore Sun readers scrambling for their dictionaries.

The offending word was "limn" (pronounced like "limb"). It appeared over a story about the leading contenders vying to become Baltimore County's next executive. The headline read: "Opposing votes limn difference in race."

"I had to keep looking at it again and again," complained Carol N. Shaw, one of a number of readers who contacted The Sun yesterday. "I consider myself an educated person. I graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Maryland, College Park some years ago with a degree in international relations/economics. I have never heard of the word "limn." ... To put a word like "limn" in the headline for the lead article on the front page of this newspaper seems to me to be unbelievably arrogant and patronizing."

The dictionary explains that the verb means to represent in drawing or painting, or, more simply, to describe. It derives from the Latin "illuminare," to embellish or light up. "Illuminate" comes from the same root.

"It did not, however, immediately illuminate some readers, who resorted to dictionaries," said John E. McIntyre, The Sun's night content production manager and longtime grammar guru. "It is most commonly found in writing about art, so it may not have been the shrewdest choice for the front page, rather than an arts page."

This is not the first time the word has appeared in The Sun. In fact, the paper has included the word at least 47 times, just since 1991. It has turned up twice before in headlines, in 1993 and 2000.

McIntyre said he supports challenging readers — now and again.

"Speaking as a headline writer myself, though not the author of this one, I heartily endorse all sorts of short verbs that are neither scatological nor obscene," he said. "Speaking as a language maven, I applaud when people consult dictionaries to add another little brick to the wall of their vocabularies. Now that you know what it means, it is yours forever."

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